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 photo reference

This is Abner. I have painted him here and here.  This time proved to be the most challenging.

 Fig 1

I had wanted to try something new on masa paper.  Instead of toning the paper, first, I began this piece with a continuous line drawing, in pencil, on the shiny side of a piece of masa paper. I went over those lines with a brush and waterproof india ink. Fig. 1 is what I came up with .

 Fig 2

After the ink dried, I crinkled the masa paper into a ball and wet it thoroughly in a bowl of water, reopened it and allowed it to dry. I then glued it to a piece of taped down Arches 140 lb coldpress watercolor paper. I mixed 4 parts acrylic Matte medium to 1 part water as my glue. I turned the drawing face down and covered the back of the piece with a thin layer of the glue mixture and then turned it over and affixed it to the surface of the watercolor paper by stroking a thin layer of the glue mixture all over the front. I encouraged air bubbles to escape by stroking with my brush from the center out. I then let the piece dry overnight so the surface of the paper was flat to work on. Refer to Fig 2.

 Fig 3

I, next, explored the colors I might want to use for rendering this image and ran into a huge problem! The colors were “dead” looking on the colorful background. They came out very mid-tone and matched the value of the background colors that I had wanted to save for this. I also had another problem. I was trying to paint the dog more realistically than my loose continuous line drawing was going to allow for. I had already lost the light area on the topmost portion of his skull. My next step was to spray what I had painted and lift out as much as I could with paper toweling. Voila! It worked to soften the grays I had tried to replicate and I thought I could, perhaps, continue if I did something with the foreground and background, first. That would give me some time to think about how I might approach painting the dog since my original intent to follow the patterns of the photo were not going to work. Refer to Fig 3.

 Fig 4

I painted loose greens, yellows and blues for the grassy area in the foreground and tried for a bushy red and green background. The background just did not fit, so I sprayed water on the bushy background and lifted as much as I could. It looked awful! …but, at least the dog’s head popped forward some.  I added a very dark underside to the bushes, accentuating two of the colors I had used to begin painting the dog (hoping for harmony). I liked how the original toning of the masa paper began to help me as I painted the dog, so I opted to allow some of the reds and yellows to show through and define some of the dog’s form. I liked portions of what I saw in Fig 4, above, but was about ready to throw it into the trash because I was getting a painting that was largely midtones in value. What did I do? I went to bed on it.

The next morning, with a clearer head and a completely dried painting (Fig 4), I asked myself what I thought the major challenges were. I came up with:

1. Lack of value contrast

2. I would need to work with the quirky distortions of my continuous line drawing

3. I would need to provide some kind of contrast between the dog and his environment

4. I needed to divorce myself from the photo reference and allow my imagination and creativity to come forward

I disliked the background so decided that one way I may be able to provide contrast in value was with a white picket fence in the background. By doing so, that would give me contrast between the flowing continuous lines of the dog and the rigid manmade lines of the fence.

 Fig 5

I rendered the picket fence with white goauche and came up with Fig 5. The white goauche was not sufficient enough, even with two layers, to cover the layers of watercolor which kept bleeding through.

 Fig 6

I pulled out my white acrylic paint and painted it one more time.  What I liked about this was that it immediately provided contrast between dog and background, pushed the dog forward and even looked like a painted wood fence due to the crinkles in the masa paper.  Refer to Fig 6.

Note, also, how the dog’s value became lighter with the brightening of the fence between Fig 5 and Fig 6. This often happens when you make value changes and needs to be addressed. Thus, I knew I had to darken the dog again.

Finished Painting

In the final steps of creating this piece, I worked with blending aureolin (transparent staining yellow),  permanent rose and prussian blue to develop a gray black on the surface of my dog portrait. I opted to allow and exaggerate some of the reds and yellows that were in the original toning of the masa paper, salvaging a quirky look to the color of the dog to parallel his loosely rendered continuous line form. I pushed these colors until I felt his contours read believable. I exaggerated the darkness of his pupils and iris and contrasted that with white goauche for the whites of the eyes and left his muzzle very light so as to draw the viewer’s eye to his face.

This is not at all the end result of what I had pictured in my mind. However, I now have a painting that is creative, somewhat quirky and reads well enough to avoid my trashing it.

The true test will be when my daughter sees this. This is Abner, one of her rescue dogs. He “IS” quirky, energetic and a bit of a prankster. Perhaps that comes through in the color and the playful way I have approached painting him.

What is the message? Don’t give up! Masa paper presents a challenge. As an artist, I have the tools and the creativity to learn from whatever any particular painting is trying to teach me! I can change it to a mixed media if I have to. I can create contrast and push for the values I want there. I may surprise myself.

To view other masa paintings I have painted click here.


  1. Oh what a process, Leslie. You really worked with this one, it seems. The question is, what did Abner do when you showed him? 🙂

    • Good question, Amy! I have not been to see Abner in three weeks, so I don’tknow. I just know he is photogenic and I really enjoy trying to capture his image. He is the kind of canine friend who leaves me wondering what he might be thinking about anything at any given moment. That may be why I enjoy staring at his image as many times as I have. He has a certain allure. Thank you for the visit and the comment! 🙂

  2. Leslie, mind blowing final result! I loved the sketch first and then the process of it getting life magically. The fence did bring him out and created a depth.You have shown me true grit , that I lack, that I need to learn!

    • Oh, I don’t believe you for one minute that you don’t have the grit. I have been visiting your blog for too long and seen some incredibly creative approaches being taken. Your vision is something I admire. Thank you for this comment, especially “mind blowing result”. I sometimes think I leave a painting in the dust too soon.

  3. What an incredible process! And such a wonderful result. You really made this work. I love this portrait of Abner.

    • Hi Kate!
      It doesn’t surprise me that Abner could trap you into liking his portrait. 🙂 You are one of those dog’s best friend people that hear their song. Thank you for this visit and comment.

  4. Abner is a gorgeous Weimaraner, both in reality and in your painting, Leslie. I love the addition of the fence. It was exactly what this piece needed. Thanks to you, I’ve purchased some Masa paper. Thank you for some of your explanation on how you used this piece. I’m going to have to look for videos on it too as I hope to avoid the gluing part of it. That sounds like lots of work.

    • The glueing is a bit more time consuming but I like the effect that the arches provides to the finished painting. I also would not have the benefit of the acrylic matte medium that I think allows me some freedom to make mistakes as I can lift, some, and play around in the image. The paint would set in immediately without it. Glueing it down also provides a tougher and more forgiving surface to work on. However, I saw a cool demo the other day where an artist was just mopping up colors from a butcher tin and recrumpling the paper after each color was added. Voila! Instant abstract. I think there are multiple ways to work with this paper. Have a great time creating on it! Thank you for this comment and I can hardly wait to see and learn how you use it!

  5. I absolutely love the colours and style you have gone for here
    Brilliant art piece!

    • Thank you, so much, Littleskew! I think the colored or toned surface is one of the things that keeps me entertained and challenged throughout one of these paintings. I never really can know what it will look like in the end.

  6. I love the freedom you give yourself to allow the process to unfold. The colors, textures and composition almost seem to create themselves. You trust this process and it is evident in the results.
    Corey is going to love Abner! Beautiful work. Nan

    • Hi Nancy!
      Thank you for that word “freedom” in this comment. I so often feel as though my freedom is taken away as I come upon a problem. I guess it is really the painting telling me to get more into my free creative mode! Thank you for that!

  7. Leslie, thank you for sharing this whole process and how you solved what you considered problems with your painting. I love the picket fence. And of course I love Abner. You really spent a lot of time thinking about solutions which is great.

    I was surprised to read that you put the matte medium mix onto the front of the masa paper as well. Did I read that correctly? Does it affect how the paint goes down after it dries?

    • I have to somehow flatten the front of the paper so there are no air bubbles and, as I do that, the glue is going to seep some onto edges and through the paper, anyway. By stroking the surface with the mixture, I know I have the same type of surface all over my image. I like it because I have some lifting properties. It is not slick to paint on like you might think. The paint still works into the watercolor paper beneath it. I think the masa becomes more porous due to the wetting and crinkling. Much of the sizing is gone by then. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. The matte medium on a piece of Arches would be a very slick surface to work on. Not so with masa.
      Thank you for mentioning that picket fence. I wish I had thought of it sooner. I’d probably still be sitting here if I had not looked out the window at my picket fence in my back yard, which gave me the idea in the first place. Ha!
      Thanks, Carol!

  8. Thanks so much for sharing all the stages, Leslie. It was answering some of the questions I had myself, when playing with masa.

    I could feel your pain as you wandered, frustrated through the first stages. What you achieved in the end brought a big wide toothy grin to my face!! This is amazing, Leslie and your daughter will love it!!

    • I think I learned some of this persistence and freedom to create attitude from you, Beth. You can do anything with any photo reference. I truly admire that gift. Thank you for this comment. Oh. I had the nerve to try the black line in this due to those incredible acrylics you do with the black outline throughout them. Thank you for that, too!

  9. This is one of my favorites! Well done!

    • Thank you for this comment, Chris. I admire your use of color and thought I may have really botched this in that regard.

  10. So grateful for artists that share their process: artistic, emotional, cognitive. So many times we “chuck it” with out giving creations time to breathe into life. This rendition of Abner is by far the most complex; revealing the “trickster” and revealing the patience and flexibility of a seasoned artist. Thanks!

  11. Thanks so much for sharing this proces, Leslie. I love the final result (a very good looking Abner) and how you find this wonderful solution for the background.

    • Thank you Hannekekoop. I think you are the truly creative genius amongst us. Your fairies and dragons and trolls and characters amaze me!

  12. First, let me say how beautiful Abner is and I think I see some of that prankster glint in his eyes in the photo. Leslie, I love how you explain your process and journey in creating your art…sometimes having to change your perception of the outcome along the way.

    • I know you do that with your writing, Gayle. I don’t know why we even, at times, feel as though we have to hang onto that preconceived notion of what we want something to look like, when we watch the world change around us, daily. Thank you for this comment.

  13. Leslie, I love Abner and your portrait of him. I would never have thought to have a base painting of yellow, pink, and blue for a weimaraner (?) but he is beautiful. Just goes to show that the unexpected can work out wonderfully. It is an inspiiration to try new things.

    • I have learned, if we only think of local color as we create, we may limit where we really wish to go with our creations as artists. I am blown away that I have the opportunity to create whatever I want to. With practice and by opening my mind and heart to the possibilities there are limitless combinations at my fingertips to express what I want. You are doing the same thing with your city scapes. Chris Carter has a wonderful blog running about color here: When she speaks, I try to listen and see.
      Thank you so much for your comment, here, Ruth. You are an inspiration.

  14. Very interesting website. I’ll have to go back when I have a little more time.

    • I just read as she posts and have picked up what I can assimilate. It’s all food for the creative soul. Thanks for taking a look.

  15. Wow! this is a gorgeous painting Leslie of such a beautiful animal! Once again a very interesting process using Masa paper. Leslie you are definitely an ambassador for this interesting paper – I bet quite a few people reading your wonderful blog have been converted thanks to your demonstrations!

    • I hope more artists are trying this paper. I “REALLY” like it. Thank you for this comment.

  16. This is one of your most interesting paintings, Leslie, and I like your thought processes about it.

    I bought myself some gouache recently then forgot what it was I had wanted to paint!

    • What a riot, Val! I have done the same thing. I have art supplies in my cupboard downstairs that have been there for awhile waiting for me to remember why I bought them, too! 🙂 Thank you for the visit and the comment!

  17. Beautiful result Leslie! Interesting to see your progress and process, I should try this on my photography blog. I like the idea very much.

    And i love your statement in no 4 : (very inspiring!)

    4. I needed to divorce myself from the photo reference and allow my imagination and creativity to come forward

    • Thank you for this comment, Anne. Photographers are artists, also. Sometimes, those of us who paint rely so much on what the photo represents, we miss the true painting we could have created.

  18. I just love this dog, and I really love the series of three you have done. I have been putting off drawing my own dog because I am worried it won’t look like him. I know I should just give it a go, right!

    The transformation from figure 3 to 4 is the most magical part, to me. I love the color, but I can see how the dog and the background are very close in tone as you described. Wonderful description of your steps, by the way! The final with all his colors is so regal and vibrant! The batik look of the masa paper is just too cool.

    I know just what you mean about being frustrated at different points! Many times I have been glad I kept going when I might have given up, because few early problems cannot be fixed. 🙂

    • Oh, you must paint your own dog! You are so good with caricature and capturing expression. Even if the first tries don’t come out looking like your own dog, he will look like someone’s dog. My daughter finally saw this and laughed so hard! She said I captured that spunk in him and laughed some more. Truly, a painting can tell us where we have been in a portrait and what we see in that special dog. Your dog can be an endless source of material for you, Cindy. Take the plunge.
      You work in a medium much like mine where erasures are not possible. I think it is one of the things that keeps me painting happily in watercolor. I love a challenge. I also like a painting taking me into insights I did not know were possible. Thanks for the great comment! 🙂

  19. Hi Leslie!

    I really love reading how you paint step by step! It is so inspiring! Maybe I should start painting? My husband keeps nagging at me to get a hobby :p Oh well, I guess it won’t be as much fun when I relize how many years of practice it will take before I paint as good as you do (If ever!). I hope you are doing well Leslie. I still have a painting in my livingroom making me think of you 🙂

    • Hi Camilla!
      Ha! I think raising two small children is a fulltime hobby, don’t you? I remember creating art with mine and now I do that with my Grandchildren. I also have purchased cameras for the little ones and take them on outings where they snap away. How tickled they become when they get a readable image.
      I took drawing classes when my two children were pre-schoolers (3 and 4). It gave me an evening out and something to do after they went to bed in the evenings. I had to start somewhere. You can do it, too! Thank you for the comment! 🙂

  20. Simply beautiful. I loved the sketch first and then the process of it getting life AMAZINGLY 🙂 🙂

    • Thank you, Marinela. Your comment about liking the sketch made me smile. I love drawing and don’t do enough of it.

  21. Who would have thought that green and blue would work for a dog ?? But with you, no problem! Wonderful Leslie!

    • I know you to be right there with me with experimental color. In fact, some of your loose and colorful work has given me the nudge I need to be even more brave with what I create. Thank you for that and the comment, Isabelle! 🙂

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] I think it’s important to experiment with ones creativity, to discover one’s potential and to discover what works best.  For instance, have a look at Leslie White’s art blog and in particular, this post – Abner on Masa: Learning from my mistakes. […]

  2. […] The above two paintings were painted on toned masa paper. It is one of my favorite supports to paint on.  If you would like to learn more about how to prepare and tone masa paper and some of the things you can do with it click here and here. […]

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